The memory of those days in the hospital last December is still vivid for Rudy Tomjanovich. “I was scared when they told me about all the things that were happening inside of me. I didn’t sleep for three days because I thought I might never wake up. I just lay there and watched the clock.”
Tomjanovich, 29, a 6’8″, 220-lb. All-Star forward for the Houston Rockets, was suffering from a brain concussion, leakage of spinal fluid into the brain cavity, and fractures of the skull, jaw and nose. Rushing into an on-court fight, he ran into the full force of a punch thrown by 6’8″, 230-lb. Kermit Washington, then of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The incident led to a 60-day suspension without pay and a $10,000 fine for Washington and a general crackdown on violence by National Basketball Association Commissioner Larry O’Brien. (The Rockets’ $1.4 million suit against the Lakers and Tomjanovich’s personal attempt to obtain compensation are still pending.)
“My face was just kind of hanging there,” he remembers. “If you could have seen me, you’d know I was a human being, but I looked like a monster.” (“If it wasn’t for his body and voice,” says Rudy’s wife, Sophie, “I wouldn’t have recognized him.”) Now, 11 months later, the only obvious signs of the injuries are two small scars around the lips. Tomjanovich (it’s pronounced tomJOHN-oh-vich, but most fans and announcers call him “Rudy T”) is a monster only to the opposition. After eight games he was averaging 22.4 points, well above his eight-season career record of 18.1. “I never had a doubt about Rudy,” says Rocket coach Tom Nissalke. “He’s a determined guy.”
Sophie wasn’t so confident. “When an athlete’s injured—even if it’s just a bruise—they complain,” she says. “When this happened I thought, ‘My God, will he ever be able to play again?’ ” But Tomjanovich began a strict regimen of jogging, tennis and workouts at a neighborhood health club near his Houston home less than two months after he was hit.
He did not return to competition again until this summer, at the Rockets’ rookie and free-agent camp. “Here were guys clawing to make the team, and I wasn’t even in shape,” he recalls. “But I found out what would happen when I got popped—I knew I could take it.”
Tomjanovich says the only lingering effects of the injuries are some sinus discomfort and occasional facial numbness. “People see me this season and say, ‘God, he must not have been hurt too bad; he’s out there playing his behind off.’ All the while I wasn’t playing I thought about who I am. I realized how much a part of my life basketball is, and I didn’t want it to end like that. There had been too much work.”
The only son of a Croatian shoemaker, Tomjanovich grew up poor in Detroit, learning basketball in alley pickup games, then leading his high school team to two state championships before starring at the University of Michigan. “I’d go into a neighborhood where I might be the only white guy for five miles, just to play basketball,” he says. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to defend myself in order to get out of a tight spot. But I don’t believe in dealing with people by punching them. That should be the last resort.”
Tomjanovich shrugs off any speculation about the Rockets’ first game this season against San Diego—Kermit Washington’s new team—on Nov. 11. “People ask me if I’ll ever talk to Washington again,” he says. “Well, I just play the game. I think I can shoot as good as anybody in basketball, but everybody knows me as the guy who got punched in the face. I don’t want that. I want things to get back to normal.”